‘We delayed bringing products’ says GSK boss

By Megan Brodie 2 years ago | In People
  • 2 years ago
GSK Senior VP and GM ANZ Patrick Desbiens

28 January 2022

When Patrick Desbiens arrived in Australia in early January to lead GSK’s Australia and New Zealand operation, he was stepping out of a global senior vice president role where he managed the company’s vaccines commercial business – no small feat given GSK is the largest vaccines company in the world.

Desbiens put his hand up to swap roles with rising star Christi Kelsey, telling MedNews it was “a fantastic opportunity” as he approaches his 55th birthday and, with plans to retire at 60, was eager to move back into country management while also looking to make a strong contribution in the not for profit space.

This is Desbiens’ third stint as a country manager and, while seemingly over-qualified for the job, his arrival marks an unexpected bonus, not just for GSK but for the local industry as it prepares for the pending review of Australia’s health technology assessment (HTA) processes.

Along with his partner, Desbiens is committed to staying at least three years in Australia, putting him here not just for the two-year duration of the HTA review but also the term of the next Federal Government.

As such, his global-level experience could prove to be a key factor in driving a much-needed change in the way vaccines and medicines are valued in Australia, his powerful first-hand evidence of the long-term impact of Australia’s pricing policies potentially helping to sway the newly elected government to adopt a different pricing strategy.

“In my previous position, we would delay bringing products to Australia because we knew we’d be getting into that level of price discussion, and that can then affect other markets,” Desbiens said.

He says Australia’s consistent pricing behaviour over many years meant companies like GSK “now know what to expect”. He used GSK’s blockbuster shingles vaccine Shingrix as an example, saying every country wanted it when it was launched in 2017 and most were prepared to pay US pricing to secure supply. Australia, on the other hand, compared it to a much older vaccine and took an overly conservative approach in valuing the gains for patients.

Desbiens also brings his experience in negotiating advance purchase deals for GSK’s multiple Covid vaccines in development, saying in these negotiations countries realised they needed to align with the global pricing approach or miss out – an experience that should be used for future vaccine arrangements.

“I was intimately engaged in all our vaccine discussions,” he says. “In Covid, I was at the forefront of all of our collaboration discussions. I suspect all companies took a global view on pricing – if countries wanted to have access to vaccines, they had to align to the pricing approach. We need to highlight the Covid event, both from a value of innovation to a pricing and access point of view, and then an overall value creation point of view.”

Desbiens says a creative approach could be taken to future deals with the Government, such as linking clinical trial enrolments to drug pricing. He is thinking out loud but believes a new approach is needed to break the nexus caused by Australia’s long-term commitment to what he believes is an unsustainable pricing policy.

“If Australia wants to be New Zealand, it has implications and we need to be quite clear on what those implications are,” he says.

An interesting career path

An easy-going man with warmth and good humour, Desbiens connects easily with people – something he learned early in life in his first job working as a Budweiser beer salesman. He was still at university when he started and says having a car filled with beer and freebies made him extremely popular on campus, but also taught of the need to connect with his customers, whether it was the pub owners, grocery store managers, or students.

His sales career took off at Lilly but he was later headhunted into a corporate communications firm before GSK, a client, convinced him to go in-house. That was 1996 and Desbiens has since remained with GSK, attributing his loyalty in part to the company’s unquestioning acceptance of him being gay long before LGBTQI+ rights were recognised. In 2009 when he moved to Romania as Country Manager, GSK organised a commercial visa for his partner as he was unable to enter as Desbiens’ spouse.

Desbiens stint in Romania was formative in many ways, not least because it gave him the opportunity to make a significant difference outside of his GSK job, leading a project to build what was only the country’s second palliative care hospice. He convinced the CEOs of 10 companies along with five ambassadors to back the project, raising five million euros to fund the facility in Bucharest.

“The centre is up and running thanks to everyone who jumped in,” says Desbiens. “It’s one of my most important accomplishments and gave me a taste for what I should be doing once I leave corporate life. Whenever I go into countries like Australia, I’m looking for somewhere I can make a difference.”

Contributing to the MA Board

While Desbiens is one of nine candidates to have nominated for the Medicines Australia Board, he is quick to point out he doesn’t need it to flesh out his CV. He has already served on multiple boards but feels he can add value.

While only in the country a few weeks, he believes having served two previous terms as a country manager means he can juggle the competing priorities of running a company while also serving on the industry board.

“It’s not my first GM gig,” he says. “I’m not pretending it’s going to be easy, but I know what the role is and I believe I have the bandwidth to also contribute at the Board level.

“I don’t have local knowledge but I can bring my hands-on experience from 25 years at GSK, and also a bit of diversity. I can leave my GSK agenda at the door and really focus on the common industry agenda.”

Desbiens says Australia’s island status means having people from different walks of life, cultures and backgrounds can help connect it with other jurisdictions, and he offers direct knowledge of the US experience and the threat international price referencing presents.

Whether elected to the Board or not, Desbiens is here for three years and is eager to contribute. For Australia, it marks a golden opportunity to have a global decision-maker at hand, able to explain first-hand how local policies have long-term implications for patient access.

©MedNews 2022

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